Erick Hawkins--the grand old man of American dance, who burst into stardom with Martha Graham in the 1930s only to break away 20 years later to choreograph a style of his own that helped shape modern ballet--has died in New York City at 85.
Associates said that Hawkins, who suffered a crippling stroke in 1988 that forced him into a wheelchair but sapped none of his vigor and enthusiasm for the art he pursued for 60 years, succumbed to prostate cancer on Wednesday after a long illness.
Despite his infirmities, Hawkins continued his work almost until the end, directing students at Hunter College in New York earlier this year as they experimented with new steps in "Each Time You Carry Me This Way," a dance he choreographed in 1993.
Just last month, President Clinton awarded him the National Medal of the Arts, citing the "unique talent" that had enabled Hawkins "to place dance in a larger cultural and philosophical context."
Born in Trinidad, Colo., Hawkins earned a degree in the classics at Harvard University before studying modern dance with Harald Kreutzberg and George Balanchine, the latter generally considered one of the greatest choreographers of the 20th Century.
While performing as a charter member of Balanchine's Ballet Caravan in 1936, Harkins met premier choreographer Martha Graham, joining her company as her first permanent male dancer and remaining a principal performer in her troupe for a dozen years.
Among the many works in which he created roles were "American Document" in 1938, "Letter to the World" in 1940, "Appalachian Spring" in 1944 and "Stephen Acrobat" in 1947.
Hawkins and Graham married in 1948. It was a troubled union, one that Hawkins later called "a dumb mistake on my part. . . .
"The age difference alone (she was 15 years his senior) made for problems," he said. "But the worst part was Martha's jealous fury over my success. One time, a critic singled me out for a favorable notice. . . . For the next week, my life was unbearable."
There were artistic differences, too--Hawkins espoused a "free-flow" approach, while Graham was more disciplined. Nonetheless, he admitted that she was a source of inspiration.
"Martha taught me to live with courage," he told an interviewer years later. "She had a vision and she went after it. . . . I've always been grateful to her because she unleashed the imagination so that in inventing movement, I was reckless in trying to find new ideas."
After two tempestuous years, Hawkins and Graham divorced and he went on to form his own dance company, working in collaboration with composer Lucia Dlugoszewski.
The Erick Hawkins Dance Company won kudos for its innovative artistry--espousing Asian modes of time, space and perspective years before such viewpoints became fashionable--but for years it struggled financially, largely shunned by mainstream audiences.
"Those were tough years, but they paid off," Hawkins said later. "Somehow, we kept going. Somehow, we always had just enough money and recognition. . . . Somehow, all that slow growth made me dig deeper. . . .
"I had to learn to keep away from negativity, from cynicism, from becoming jaded," he said. "When we stay in anger, envy or frustration, we cannot function. . . . People, like plants, must be allowed to flower."
With concert works such as "Here and Now With Watchers" in 1957, "Geography at Noon" in 1964, "Tightrope" in 1968 and "Classic Kite Tails" in 1972, there came a modest measure of financial success and renewed recognition.
"The question is, do you get attention for the right reasons?" he asked an interviewer a few years later. "All this vainglorious stuff is sickening. I'm not interested in that."
He may not have been vainglorious, but the trim, craggy-faced performer certainly was vain.
When, in 1977, Horst Koegler's Concise Oxford Dictionary of Ballet listed Hawkins' year of birth as 1909, it drove him into a rage.
"God damn him," Hawkins exclaimed, pounding a table with his fist. "That date is not true."
But it was. And although he continued dancing well into his 60s, finally, in 1976, he had to leave the performances to others, concentrating all his efforts on choreography.
The works continued: "Plains Daybreak" in 1979, "New Moon" in 1991, "Each Time You Carry Me This Way" in 1993.
One of his last efforts, completed earlier this year, was "Many Thanks," which he said was choreographed in appreciation of the many people who touched his life and made it possible for him to dance.
"I'm grateful," he said.